The National Pulse

Too Much Information?

County Clerks Tussle With Nervous State Officials Over Posting Court Records Online

Posted Apr 1, 2004 12:18 PM CDT
By Jason Krause

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The Web site run by the Manatee County, Fla., clerk of courts contains just about any court record a researcher would want. For now, anyway.

This month, the recently formed state Committee on Privacy and Court Records will meet to decide exactly how much information county courts should make available on the Internet. Mean­while, the Florida Supreme Court last November issued a moratorium on placing documents online.

Caught in the middle of the debate over privacy versus public information is R.B. “Chips” Shore, Manatee Coun­ty clerk of circuit court. Public documents ranging from court cases to divorce records to real estate transactions are available on his Web site, www.clerkofcourts.com.

From Shore’s perspective, the Florida legislature pushed clerks to make records available in electronic formats, but never gave guidance on how to do it properly. Now, says Shore, nervous state officials are calling an abrupt halt to the practice, and leaving clerks like Shore in limbo.

“I haven’t seen any evidence of identity theft from pub­­lic records,” says Shore. “But because some people are afraid it could happen, there’s suddenly a big to-do about court records on the Net.”

CRIMINAL CONVENIENCE

Manatee County may have the most raucous debate, but county clerks across the nation are facing anxious state and local officials seeking to slow or stop altogether the posting of public information on the Internet.

Those officials worry that the Internet makes it too easy for criminals to obtain personal information. Although the same data would be available on paper, some say the burden of going to a courthouse makes it impractical to find personal information.

Left in the lurch are county clerks, who see the Inter­net as a cost-cutting way to post public documents.

“We’re collateral damage in a political war,” says Cindy Carpenter, clerk of courts in Butler County, Ohio. In July, two judges ordered Carpenter to remove all domestic relations cases from the Internet.

“Since the order, our domestic relations records cannot be accessed,” she says. “I may be in violation of the law because of this.”

However, Butler County officials say more is at stake than Social Security numbers. “The kinds of records in domestic relations cases are intensely personal,” says administrative judge Leslie Spillane. “Incest, sexual abuse, drug abuse, alcohol abuse, sexually transmitted diseases—that’s the kind of stuff that’s in the body of a decision and published for the whole world to see on the Web.”

Spillane says that when neighboring Hamilton County handled the divorce of former Cincinnati Reds catcher Johnny Bench, roughly 20,000 people logged on. Those people weren’t trying to steal Bench’s identity, she says. “They were looking for the details of his personal life.”

Carpenter disagrees. “To say that criminals are less likely to walk in and get information from the courthouse than to download it in the safety of their own home is naïve,” she says. “They don’t see the unsavory characters who come here seeking their neighbor’s divorce proceedings, which is something we see every day.”

The Judicial Conference of the United States, the principal policy-making body for the federal court system, and the Williamsburg, Va.-based National Center for State Courts have published guidelines for handling online records. Both guidelines define what information and evidence should not be published in electronic formats. Such information ranges from domestic abuse victims’ personal information to bank and medical records.

The Ohio legislature is expected to consider the issue in the next session. However, it may take years to resolve the dilemma. The Florida moratorium, which allows some official records and individually requested documents to be accessed electronically, has mostly led to confusion. As of February, Shore has yet to take anything off his Web site. “We’ve asked for a clarification of the order,” he says. “But the answers we’ve gotten have only opened up more questions.”

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